October 1, 2021 | LIFE | By Annie Knight | Photo by Sierra Romero
From the opening shot of Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” we know we’re in for a character study: a look through someone else’s eyes. The film opens with an extreme close-up on Faye’s trademark, overdone eye makeup as she sits in a makeup chair in a television studio. Crunchy, black eye lashes and shiny, silver eyeshadow cake Faye’s eyes near the point of grotesqueness in their domination of the screen.
An offscreen voice asks to remove some of the products. Faye, however, says, “my eyes are permanently on.” From this moment on, Showalter has established two things. One, Tammy Faye wears a mask that never comes off. Two, the audience will have the privilege of uncovering the truth underneath this mask. While Showalter accomplished both of these things in his film, I for one was not all that intrigued by what was lurking underneath.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” follows televangelist couple Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in the 1970s. It chronicles their rise to fame from humble beginnings to creating the world’s largest religious broadcasting network — essentially the blueprint for televangelism. However, financial and sexual scandal, rivalry, and greed threaten to bring down the empire the Bakkers built.
Showalter’s film is a biopic re-imagining of a documentary of the same name from 2001. Biopics are a hard sell for me. I usually find them falling flat in comparison to the larger-than-life people they attempt to bottle on a screen.
In “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” however, the casting is the best part of the film. Jessica Chastain, playing Tammy, and Andrew Garfield, playing Jim, have a natural chemistry onscreen and a commitment to character that had me believing they were the real Tammy and Jim. Chastain’s performance alone is a masterclass on going all-in on a character.
However, beyond performance, I found the film to be restrained. There were times when Showalter set out to poke fun at the Bakkers, and it’s hard not to. Some of my favorite scenes in the film were when the Bakkers would fight, listing off all the demands they wanted of their partner, which all began with the line “well God says I should…” Jim and Tammy’s obliviousness to their own narcissism was amusing and made for great satire on capitalism and the greed it promotes.
It was when Showalter set out to sympathize with the Bakkers that the film fell flat. There was an emphasis on Tammy “loving everyone;” for example, her being an early supporter of AIDS victims, to her husband’s chagrin, felt forced to me.
Most often, we would experience the unmasking of Tammy through voice over prayers that I found cringeworthy. Additionally, subplots like the strained relationship between Tammy and her mother that could have led to rich character development ended up being pushed aside for the sensational parts of the film that ultimately play like a highlights reel. When all the lashes come off, Showalter’s Tammy Faye isn’t all that deep.
Ultimately, the film’s balancing act between satire and heartfelt left each end of this spectrum lacking. By the end of the film, I felt like “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” hadn’t figured out what it wanted to say, so it ended up saying nothing. There was a real potential to make commentary about the place of religion, greed, and self-loathing homophobia in our society; however, these topics were glossed over. Additionally, it would have made for a better film if Showalter had dared to dig a bit deeper into the actual Tammy Faye.
The film is not a complete waste of a movie ticket if you’re a huge fan of Chastain or Garfield, but you might have just as good a time taking a cue from the other three people in the theater with me who all took a nap instead.